When one thinks of representations of Baltimore in cinema, it’s easy to default to John Waters’ films in one’s mind. Not so with director Sheldon Candis’ sophomore feature, LUV, a Baltimore set coming-of-age tale that, for the most part, is quite compelling, though due to some glaring implausible moments, loses significant steam by the closing credits.
Newcomer Michael Rainey Jr. stars as Woody, a thirteen year old boy left by his mother to live with his grandmother. It’s obvious that Woody’s mom has been having some kind of difficulties (she’s actually at a drug rehabilitation center in North Carolina) and his hope lies with being reunited with her. His Uncle Vincent (Common) has just been released from prison (serving eight years of a 20 year sentence), and as the film opens, Vincent has decided to drive Woody to school, though on the way, after discussing the young boy’s prowess with females, Vincent decided to take Woody with him instead, to teach him “real world shit” about being a man.
It’s Vincent’s dream to own a shellfish restaurant, so their first stop is the bank, where Vincent is denied a loan because he’s late on payment for his first mortgage. However, the bank manager states that if he can get 20,000 plus to him by Monday, they can look at the loan for the restaurant again. Uncle Vincent is positive he can have that sum in that time frame. But just what does he have to do to get it? The rest of the film has Vincent bringing Woody into the underbelly of Baltimore, visiting one gangster stereotype after the other (Haysbert, Glover, etc) and we learn that the crime world of Baltimore is suspicious of how Vincent got out so early.
Candis has assembled a first rate cast in this feature, though it’s a shame that some of their characterizations are mostly gangster stereotypes (with the exception of a surprisingly menacing Haysbert). Female characters are on the back burner, though Meagan Goode and Marz Lovejoy make minor appearances. The weight of the film rests on the chemistry between Common and newcomer Rainey, and they both give it their all, their bond and chemistry propelling the film into surprisingly emotional territory. It’s just too bad that, ultimately, the script gets a little hackneyed with how it handles the child’s role through the course of one strenuous and shell-shocked day.
By the film’s conclusion, there’s just no way a child of that age would be able to accomplish what he does, especially after only one day’s “training” (and not to mention a wholly unbelievable police encounter at the film’s end). However, it’s noteworthy to mention that Common is surprisingly good here, and it will be intriguing to see if he will continue to take more substantial work in independent cinema. LUV happens to have its convincing moments, racing around like a cross between The Fallen Idol (1948) and Training Day (2002), but ultimately, it sells itself short.
Reviewed on January 23 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – US DRAMATIC COMPETITION Programme.